But What Kind of WPA Am I?

By Melissa Ianetta, University of Delaware

Scene: MLA Convention, New Orleans, 2002.

A PhD candidate is interviewing for an Assistant Professor/WPA position at large state university in the west. The conversation, which thus far has examined her teaching and research, has been both genial and animated—which the intrepid job seeker takes as a good sign. The search chair then moves the discussion to the WPA portion of the job.

“Could you tell me a bit about how you would work as a WPA?” he asks, resettling himself in his chair and looking the candidate in the eye.

“Certainly,” she responds. “I think a WPA functions best when her leadership grows from and responds to the local context in which she works. So for my first year, I would want to talk with the various stakeholders—the department, the part-time instructors, graduate students currently teaching in the program and, possibly, institutional leadership—to get a sense of shared goals and mutual areas of concern. From there, I would want to work collaboratively to develop a plan that would allow us to move forward over the six years of my initial term as WPA.”

As she finishes the question, she looks to the committee expectantly, anticipating the kind of interesting, lively exchange that has characterized the interview thus far. Much to her surprise, her answer is greeted with an awkward silence.

She does not get an on-campus interview.

It probably doesn’t take strong deductive skills to figure out that, eleven years ago, I was the intrepid interviewee from the above vignette. Deduction, however, won’t lead to the name of the school since, alas, this exchange was typical of several interviews I had that year. At the time, this reaction left me confounded: What was wrong with my answer? It was honest, after all. And it showed that I knew I couldn’t just lift the model of my graduate institutional and drop it down into my new employer. It showed I was a Good Listener, for goodness’ sake. So what was wrong?

In this posting, I respond to T.A.-me by taking a look at a common misstep on the WPA/Assistant Professor interviews. As I’ll describe below, I see my interview story as emblematic of what often goes wrong at both the conference and the campus stage of this search process. Admittedly, my comments are based on anecdotal evidence: my experiences as a candidate and search chair, my friends’ job market experiences as well as stories and strategies from recent graduate students I’ve seen successfully negotiate the process. As this argument is thus based on a localized set of stories, mileage may vary—I'm not suggesting everyone (or anyone!) take my advice, but I would advise mulling it, at least.

From Here to There: Mind the Gap

My MLA experiences described above illustrate what I think of as the hardest thing about interviewing to be a WPA while still at your graduate institution: the gap between what you have done and what you will be expected to do. Generally, English department graduate students have research and teaching experiences that closely model what they will do as faculty. They design courses, teach, revise and teach them again, for example, and they develop and submit their research for review. By contrast, the work of graduate student WPAs is often more removed from the work they will accomplish as faculty. Many graduate students WPAs, for example, might have input into curriculum development, assessment planning and staffing decisions, but ultimately the responsibility for these decisions will reside with the faculty WPAs with whom they work. Rather than articulating experience with this kind of work, the typical graduate student administrative vita I have seen as a search chair (and offered myself as a graduate student), emphasizes mentoring, committee service and instructor development. This is as it should be: in most institutional landscapes, a graduate student should not be the one to deal with the legal dimension of personnel matters, tense negotiations with balky senior administrators, or day-to-day departmental political quagmires. And yet, these are a very real part of the job of the WPA. So there’s a necessary disconnect, then, between what one has done and what one will do, making it difficult to predict precisely one’s WPA identity for questioning search committees. And yet, as I read an application for a junior hire WPA, I am reading to find out, among other things, who is this person as an administrator—and this is particularly hard to do when the applicant only has a year or two of administrative experience to document their professional performance.

Exacerbating this gap between the requirements of one’s past and future roles are the inevitable disconnects between the applicant’s home school and the search committee’s institution. Graduate students tend to have WPA experience at large research institutions, but most jobs are at other kinds of schools: regional state schools, liberal arts colleges, private MA granting institutions and the like. And, even if an applicant holds a BA and/or an MA from another institutional category and so has experience in an institution beyond the research school, institutional groupings are haphazard at best. The WPA graduate with a liberal arts college BA, for example, might be surprised to see how wide is the range of schools that assume this designation: there are the highly selective liberal arts colleges, of course, but there are also several tiers of less selective liberal arts colleges which may have pre-professional and online programs; within this broad variety of institutions, there are then those liberal arts colleges with still active—but different in both kind and extent—affiliations to their founding denominations; and, finally, there are the public liberal arts colleges found within many state systems of higher education. Each of these subgroupings might embrace the designation “Liberal Arts College,” yet each subcategory represents a very particular set of opportunities and challenges. How, then, is the applicant to project themselves into a range of futures and predict how they will act as a WPA in each?

To Get a Job, Risk Losing a Job

My first proposal is that, in order to get a job, one has to risk not getting a job. My administrative spiel as a TA was heartfelt, honest—and utterly innocuous. It didn’t tell the committee who I was, what my professional commitments were, or how I was different from any of the other candidates they had spoken with. I’m sure most other applicants were similarly committed to collaborative, leadership, listening to stakeholders, working for buy-in among constituents, yaddah yaddah yaddah. All of this is true and good practice, but how can a committee choose among remarkably similar candidates? So I’d advise job seekers to think about the administrative experiences and commitments that define who they are.

Take, for example, another interview I had, the same year as the one that opens this posting. It was an interview I was surprised to receive, for it was a writing center director job, and while I had worked in multiple writing centers, I had only worked as a WPA in the composition program. So I walked into the interview thinking I was unlikely to advance beyond the first round. Accordingly, I was calm and very clear about my supposed commitments as a writing center director. I talked about the need for a writing center to have a presence beyond the English department, although this one did not have such a presence. I talked about the need for peer tutors, which this center did not have. And finally, in response to a question about “What is a bad use of technology in the writing center?” I responded “Turnitin.com and microwave popcorn. I can’t stand a writing center that smells like microwave popcorn, particularly burned microwave popcorn.” I left that interview knowing I was either at the top of their list or that they were thanking God I was gone. And, yes, that was my first job.

I tell this story not to suggest that candidates be needlessly provocative or even a whit more sassy. But I do think that, in addition to researching carefully the schools to which one applies, it is equally important to research one’s self. What would, honestly, be the deal breakers for you as a WPA? Under what circumstances would you just rather not have the job? Or, more optimistically, what would distinguish you? In addition to asking yourself these questions, ask too the people you’ve worked with, including faculty, other graduate student WPAs with whom you’ve collaborated and teachers you’ve mentored. Their answers, like your own, might surprise you.

Know Your Audience…Ask Your Audience

Every job market guru suggests researching a school before interviewing, but for the WPA-aspirant, this advice is particularly true. Job seekers in other fields might be focusing in on the interviewing department, with perhaps a quick glance to the institution’s mission statement or to the page for the Provost or Dean who will be part of the interviewing process. The WPA job candidate, however, should be looking at the pages of Institutional Research—a rich mine of information at many places—as well as the pages for any allied programs (writing center, first-year experience, WAC, professional programs, etc.). You’ll want to show you not only can find the information that they make available but that you can do something with it. So draw upon it in your conversations. When you do so, you might be surprised what faculty DON’T know about their institution—and how pleased they are that you DO know this stuff.

Finally, I’d note that, if you want to be seen as a good listener, listen. The scenario with which I opened might have gone much differently, perhaps, if somewhere in my description of my excellent listening skills, I had, well, listened. In my later job searches, I’ve found it effective to state one or two principles of my administrative philosophy and then ask, “I’m wondering how that might work in your culture.” Or, when asked a question I find puzzling (such as “How do you teach students the difference between its and it’s?”), I ask questions back (such as “Is that one of the biggest problems you see with your students’ writing? What are some of the other trends you see?”). Such questions show how you negotiate with the agendas of others and, hopefully, give you more meaningful material for your response.

I think this is actually far more than anyone needs to hear from me on the job market. So I’m going to stop now. Just remember: Research. Listen. Answer thoughtfully and diplomatically. Hmm…maybe it’s not so different from what you’ve been doing, after all!